Travel: Memphis – top things to see when visiting the home of the blues
For many, it is no doubt on a bucket list of US destinations, but for others, visiting the South is often an afterthought with the lure of New York, the West Coast and the like providing too much of a draw.
I would define myself as being in the latter category having travelled much of the States, sticking mainly to the East and West coast. Until recently, the South remained a mere bullet point on my ever-growing travel bucket list until last month when I was lucky enough to visit Memphis for four days.
While it does not feature on many “must visit” or top city lists, there can be no doubt the impact that Memphis has had on the United States, from civil rights movements, to pop culture and music.
Although I spent four days in Memphis, it felt like there was still so much to see, but here’s my highlights and top things to see when visiting the Home of the Blues.
1- National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights museum is a must visit if travelling to Memphis. The city was sadly the place where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. The hotel in which he stayed, and indeed was shot on the balcony of, has been transformed into the heart of the civil right movement for the entire nation.
The former hotel has been converted into part of the museum which chronicles the history of a people and the start and finish of the civil rights movement. The hotel where Dr King spent his final hours has also become part of the museum with his hotel bedroom part of the final exhibits as well as the very spot in which he was gunned down.
As well as chronicling the history of a movement, the museum also owns the building across from the former hotel, the same boarding house that was used to shoot Dr King from, to home to all the evidence from the trial including the view that James Earl Ray had when he gunned down the civil rights leader. It is hard to find criticism of such a stunning attraction, however, it perhaps understandably, focusses heavily on Dr King and less on more modern civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter. Either way, the National Civil Rights museum is a must visit if in Memphis and is an eye-opening experience for all ages.
While it’s an obvious contender, no trip to Memphis is complete without paying your respects to the King. Over 600,000 people a year choose to follow in the footsteps of Elvis, taking in his famous Jungle Room and more on a self-guided tour using a tablet. However, it’s not just a mansion anymore.
As well as the home of Elvis Presley, there is a Disneyland-like complex across the road offering visitors the chance to view countless amounts of Elvis memorabilia as well as his cars and outfits. Admittedly, this isn’t for everyone. I myself was more than happy just to see the mansion and opting for just the mansion tour is a significantly cheaper option at $41.
3- The Rendezvous and the Four Way Grill
Next to my notes for the Four Way Grill are simply “This is life” – and if looking for a good feed in Memphis, you will be hard-pushed to find a better option.
The chicken was stunning (although apparently Gus’s is also well worth trying) However, for me, the Four Way Grill was a true experience of the South. Located in Soulsville, the bar and grill has been on the same since 1946 and played a part in the Civil Rights movement. While it may seem slightly intimidating from the outside, the Four Way Grill is not to be missed. It will perhaps come as no surprise that food dominated much of the trip, and for ribs and soul food, it’s also worth trying The Rendezvous. The staff are exceptional, the food, sublime, just don’t have a big lunch before it! Both are true experiences of the south in their own right.
4- Memphis Heritage Tour
The city played a massive part in the Civil Rights Movement, and while for many of us it is seen as history, many in Memphis remain living history of the bygone era. The Memphis Heritage Tour tracks the historic landmarks in the city that were part of the movement. From a home used in the Underground Railroad, to the key rallying point for the historic 1968 Memphis sanitation strike with Dr King, the Heritage Tour is a must, not only to understand the history of the country, but the history of a city and a people. It chronicles the dark past of the city as well as shedding light on the modern changes that have seen Memphis look to honour and escape its past.
5- Memphis Rock and Soul Museum
There are few cities who have had as much pop and culture influence in the States as Memphis. Home to legendary Stax and Sun records (two places you can still tour with the Stax museum being my preference if short for time) Memphis gave birth to the distinct Blues sound made famous by Frank Stokes, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis and more. The rock n soul museum chronicles the history of the Memphis music scene with a self-guided audio tour. You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate the history and the museum is a must on a trip.
6- Catch an NBA game
Not every US city can proudly boast an NBA team, but Memphis is home to the Grizzles. Games are frequent (but a quick check of the fixture list is advisable) with tickets being relatively cheap. You can sit in the nose bleeds for around $20 with a decent seat costing around double. Court side will set you back by 3-figures however, in truth, it’s harder to get a bad seat in the Fed-Ex arena. It’s not every day you get to witness a professional sports game, so experiencing this American pastime is a must.
7- Bass Pro Shop
An unusual one to include on the list for sure, especially given the fact that it is effectively a hunting shop. Then again, it’s not every day that you go into a shop that is in a massive glass pyramid, home to hundreds of fish, an alligator, and has a free-standing lift to the top. The 321-foot structure, built originally as a music venue, plays on Memphis’s namesake in Egypt and includes a hotel, a bowling alley and an archery range. However, the real reason for a visit is to the upper deck of the structure, which offers stunning views of the city and the Mississippi.
Visiting Memphis – Here’s what you need to know
From £1395 per person to include United Airlines flights (Edinburgh or Glasgow) to Memphis, four nights in The Hu or Springhill Suites, entrance to Sun Studio, Stax, Rock N Soul and Graceland plus a Rockabilly half-day tour of the music scene in Memphis in a ’57 Chevy.
For more details, ring Bon Voyage Travel on 0800 316 0194.
For information on Memphis, please go to: www.memphistravel.com